Hold on with a Bulldog Grip: A Short Study of Ulysses S. Grant is a highly readable short biography of Ulysses S. Grant suitable for a wide variety of readers both school-age and adult.
The title comes from advice given by Lincoln to Grant while fighting Lee’s army, advice which Grant took to heart and which came to characterize Grant’s style of generalship. Persistence in the face of adversity is one of the most attractive aspects of Grant’s personality and serves as the keynote to this short study.
Since the authors are a team including the executive director of the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library John F. Marszalek, a leading historian of the Civil War and Grant’s life, Hold on with A Bulldog Grip is as credible as it is accessible.
For the reader not ready to invest the time in reading Ron Chernow’s Grant (1074 pages), Grant’s Memoirs (1068 pages in the edition edited by Elizabeth D. Samet) or even one of the common Grant biographies from other historians (500 pages or so), Hold on with a Bulldog Grip manages to convey nearly everything you need to know about Grant in just 114 (small) pages.
It’s not just the size, but also the writing style, that make the book accessible.
The no-nonsense chapter heads give a sense of just how much the writing style is geared towards a contemporary general reader. For example, the chapter on Grant’s time at West Point is not called something 19th-centuryish or pretentiously official like “Appointed to the Academy” but instead, uses refreshingly ordinary language for today: “College Life.”
If you already know about Grant, you may have wondered how the Grant Presidential Library wound up located at a university in the Deep South, Mississippi State. The book’s afterward provides the answer.
For the more experienced reader, the book also offers a chance to make a renewed acquaintance with some great Grant quotes like this one from a letter that Grant wrote to his friend, Illinois Congressman Elihu Washburne, reproduced with Grant’s characteristically idiosyncratic spelling:
I was never an Abolitioniest, [n]ot even what could be called anti slavery, but I try to judge farely & honestly and it become patant to my mind early in the rebellion that the North & South could never live at peace with each other except as one nation, and that without Slavery. As anxious as I am to see peace reestablished I would not therefore be willing to see any settlemen[t] until this question is forever settled.
The way the book is organized, a combination of chronology and theme, makes interesting connections. For example, the chapter containing the quote above, “The Evils of Slavery,” opens with Grant’s connection to enslaved man William Jones and closes with Grant’s manumission of Jones, for a neat bit of wrapped-up storytelling.
In the middle, the chapter explains the attitude towards slavery of Grant’s family (lots of abolitionists) and the Dent family of his wife Julia (Missouri slaveholders), along with context on the history of slavery in the United States. This chapter also covers Grant’s support for civil rights as president, from passing the Fifteenth Amendment and the Enforcement Acts to crushing the KKK. The chapter on slavery and race covers a lot of thorny topics with matter-of-fact prose that makes this most difficult of subjects go down easy.
The same can be said of the rest of the book: it’s deceptively easy to read. While being entertained by an engaging story of an unpromising young man who, with a combination of pluck and luck, turns failure into massive success, the reader will also take in important historical analysis without hardly even knowing it.
That’s why I recommend this book not only for Grant newbies but also for longtime Grant buffs.
Despite its brevity, Hold on with a Bulldog Grip ably touches on all the major controversies about Grant handled by much longer Grant biographies — drinking, owning a slave, “butcher” generalship, and an allegedly corrupt presidency. My only questions concern why some highlights, and one disturbing lowlight, were left out.
As highlights, Grant’s crazy-heroic adventures in the Mexican War are fun stories that illuminate his character. By contrast, Grant’s General Orders No. 11, expelling Jews “as a class” from the Department of the Tennessee in December 1862, is disturbing to a contemporary, post-Holocaust reader. Though the story behind Grant’s poorly conceived attempt to stop smuggling is complex, under the pens of Marszalek and his co-authors, even a single paragraph would have been enough to clear up confusion.
Hold on with A Bulldog Grip, which offers a few key photos but is mostly text, might be usefully paired with one of the picture biographies of Grant, such as Ulysses S. Grant: An Album by William S. McFeely or the decades-old but still relevant US Grant Album by Lawrence A. Frost, widely available online in used copies.